The importance of lists to archaeology project success

A couple weeks ago, I almost missed a grant submission deadline. I’d been working from about 7AM until long past Midnight trying to get the River Street Digital History Project website completed on schedule. This left little time to stay on track with grantwriting projects. So, after finishing the website, I transitioned to the grant proposal only to realize I wasn’t going to be able to create a winning proposal. I needed reference letters and didn’t have enough time to get them. I hadn’t focused on the proposal’s text, which meant it was less than great. Basically, I dropped the ball. Luckily, there is another round of proposals in January so I can make an honest go at it early next year.

All that stress had me wondering: Why wasn’t’ I on top of my game? How come stuff was getting slopped together at the last minute? Why was I falling into stressful traps that strained all aspects of my life?

The recent website/grantwriting situation was the result of poor planning. For years I’ve followed a daily, weekly, and quarterly project schedule in order to get my cultural resource management archaeology projects done in a timely fashion. I stopped following my lists during the summer and the result was missed opportunities, stressful project pushes, and a lesser quality of work.

Using a task list to keep your projects moving forward

List building is nothing new. Businesspeople have used Gantt Charts for over 100 years to keep large projects on schedule. My mom used to write down a task list to keep our family straight. My wife and I use a the Cozi family calendar app on our smartphones to keep our family obligations straight.

All that emphasis on task lists and scheduling limits creativity and spontaneity,” you might say. Don’t’ worry about spontaneity and creativity. Anyone with a job, spouse, and kids can tell you that things never work out as planned. Stuff takes longer than expected or unexpected obligations pop up that can cause disarray in your finely-tuned schedule. Life is spontaneous enough. We don’t need to worry about that.

Maintaining a task list is just a way to keep you focused on the tasks that need to get done. Lists also remind you of future things that are easy to forget about, like grant application deadlines. When I first started managing projects in CRM, I quickly realized that it’s easy for projects to end up FUBAR when you don’t stay on top of things. I had trouble writing all the sections of the report and getting them edited in a timely fashion. The gear wasn’t always ready before we went out to the field. I was rushing to make hotel reservations. My figures and maps weren’t edited until the last minute. Each day felt like I spent all of my time just keeping my head above water.

One day, a friend and mentor showed me the system he used to keep his projects running smoothly. He was the monitoring coordinator and had a huge plate of work each and every day. He used a series of lists to manage all aspects of his field projects and get them done on schedule.

This system uses long term (quarterly), weekly, and daily task lists:

Long Term Task List: The dates of CRM projects widely. How many times have you been told you were going out next week only to find out that the project you were supposed to work on has been cancelled or delayed? It happens more often than not. You need to have some sort of system that allows you to keep track of the status of these many projects when they’re still on the horizon.

There are a bunch of digital calendars and Microsoft Office-esque scheduling programs you can use, but those systems require you to take the time to actually log on and check them out. This may or may not happen. I use a whiteboard or notebook because these media are readily available and can be glanced at in a moment’s notice.



Medium Range Task List: Most of us have a number of different tasks to accomplish each week. Even though I maintain a long range calendar, I operate best on a week-to-week basis because those tasks are closer to the present and are easier to remember. Once again there are a number of different systems for keeping track of weekly tasks, but I prefer a low-tech white board. I keep a small whiteboard next to my computer monitor where I can easily see any upcoming meetings, assignments, and other obligations. I divide this into three columns for school, work, and life.

Daily Task List: This is really where the rubber meets the road. What use is a long-range or weekly task list if you don’t actually do the tasks you’ve listed?

I create my daily list on a 3×5 card or small notebook. Here is where I write down each daily task and estimate the approximate time I will spend on that task today. Then, I prioritize the tasks with regard to their importance. For example, the most important task is labeled “A1” with a short notation of how much time I want to devote to that task. The second most important task is “A2” and so on. All “A” tasks are priorities that must be completed that day, so don’t put too many things on your A-list. Stuff you want to get to if there’s enough time are labeled “B”. I really don’t do C and D list items because it is highly unlikely that I would finish all A and B list tasks. Tasks that would be on the C or D list should really be listed on the long-term or weekly schedule where they would be bumped up to A or B list items when you get around to doing them.

Recently, I’ve started putting a little box in the corner of the daily task list that reminds me of other daily things I need to remember to do on a daily basis. The box has four quadrants labeled with an “E” that reminds me to exercise, “M” for meditation, “G” for gratitude practice, and an “F” to remind me to eat good, healthy food (specifically vegetables). This was a recommendation of Tripp Lanier on The New Man Podcast. Most of these are tasks that will happen throughout the day and I cross them off when I feel like I’ve made an honest effort. For example, I check off the E box if I jog in the morning. The M box can be crossed off if I remember to meditate at each stop light while driving to work in the morning or if I actually sit down and meditate. This is really flexible, but it serves as a reminder to keep focusing on the basics– the stuff that keeps me healthy and productive.

All of this focus on task lists may sound like overkill, but you really don’t have to take it as far as I have. Most people do not maintain lists, but task lists do keep your productivity high and your mind focused on what needs to get done. It’s also a proven technique for keeping CRM projects on schedule and on budget.

Do you use a task list or schedule to keep your CRM archaeology projects on track? Tell us how they work. Write a comment below or send me an email.

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